By Marty Fleischman
Jai-Alai is one of two sports in the entire world where it is against the rules to play professionally left-handed. The other is……polo. The sport of Pelota Vasca (Jai-Alai) was designed for right handed players because of the long side wall on the left and no wall on the right.
When right handed players throw the pelota, the natural spin would force it inside, to the side wall. It would remain in play. If a lefty threw it and it touched the side wall first, the ball usually would sail out of bounds. So, to add uniformity to the sport, it was decided the cesta (throwing basket) must be on the right hand.
But, this rule was in the professional ranks, not for amateurs. And, the team representing France, our next opponents, had a left-handed frontcourter. Never had any of our players faced this type of player. It would be very difficult to anticipate where his throws would land. Positioning is essential when dealing with a ball going 150 mph.
Having made his decision to once again start Kirby Prater and Nick Nickerson, Piston told his teams to rest, relax, and be ready for the following night’s big matchup, U.S.A. versus France, in partido two. So, most of us decided to have dinner and check out the St. Jean-de-Luz Casino.
When we entered the casino, I headed toward the Blackjack tables, only to find Nick casually draped over a stool, beer in hand, and a large stack of chips. I sat next to him and started to play, asking him if he thought he might consider resting up for his big match tomorrow. Nick smiled and said that this was his way of relaxing. I watched him drink at least 3 beers and go on a win streak of more than $300, which was big money for a beach bum in 1971. Of course, I lost almost everything I had.
Again, he was the talk of the casino. Many patrons had been at the fronton the previous day and witnessed our big win. Whispers of “Neek-er-sohn”, the French version of Nickerson, could be heard throughout the room. Again, it did not seem a good look for one of our U.S. team members to be drinking and gambling the night before another big match.
Awakening the next morning at the Edouard VII hotel, I immediately went outside to the garden to have my French coffee and delicious croissants. Piston still had that worried look on his face as he sat with Grossberg and Pettit. The Hernandez family, including Charlie, our frontcourter, sat at a table by themselves. Again, they would be spectators to tonight’s match. I honestly did not know if they were actually pulling for our team to win, since Charlie, again, was on the bench.
Meanwhile, Ernie Larsen was summoned that a call was coming in from the U.S. from Mr. Berenson, so he left our table. It was not unusual that Buddy would call him, as they spoke frequently, usually after the matches. But this was a little different, so early in the morning.
When Ernie returned to table, he had a slight smile on his face and a look like he had some “big news.” And he did.
“Buddy just told me Marion County passed the referendum by a slim margin! There is now going to be an Ocala Jai-Alai,” he said. We were all shocked! How in the world did an outsider from the big sin city of Miami convince the “Bible Thumping” conservatives in the small town of Ocala to approve gambling? But he did and this meant that there would be a new Jai-Alai fronton in the state of Florida, a first in almost 20 years.
While I was trying to fathom the meaning of this news, Ernie told me that this was great for us, “for obvious reasons.” This was one of his favorite phrases. But I never seemed to know the “obvious reasons.” They were never that obvious to me. How was that going to affect me or any of us in the future? This new facility would probably take two years to actually open, a virtual lifetime for a 21-year-old. But I would soon find out.
Now, it’s game time. I was watching the players warm up on the court, astounded by this French “lefty” navigating the side wall and keeping the ball inbounds. It looked like I was watching in a mirror.
Now, it was our team’s time to warm-up, and I realized that only three of the four walked out on the court. Nick was missing. We had 15 minutes of practice before the start of the 35-point partido… and no Nick. Panic shown on Piston’s face. We had no cell phones to call and the hotel was 10 minutes away. But, with five minutes left on the clock, “Neek-er-sohn” strolled out onto the court, threw four or five hard forehands, and said he was ready.
Kirby and Nick, again, played near flawlessly. Kirby dominated the frontcourt French amateur with his power and kill shots, Nick kept the ball deep with his hard-forehand throws. Though it was close, the U.S. team won its second match and was now 2-0, vying for not only a medal, but a possible gold medal.
Now, Piston, one of the all time great frontcourters and the youngest to ever turn professional, a gentile gentleman with impeccable honor and integrity, with nerves of steel having played in front of thousands of screaming fans, looked to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Piston would have to make another huge decision. How would he deal with the Hernandez family if he didn’t start son Charlie? We were now about to face the number one seeded, undefeated Spanish team of Uriarte and Mirapege. The American prodigy, Joey Cornblit, and the U.S. Amateur Backcourt Champion Charlie Hernendez had yet to play a single point.